Lynn Byrne

Lynn Byrne

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DESIGN CLASSICS: The Knole Sofa

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  • Vintage Knole Sofa in Greg McKenzie’s library at the 2014 Hampton Designer Show House. Photography by Lynn Byrne
    Vintage Knole Sofa in Greg McKenzie’s library at the 2014 Hampton Designer Show House. Photography by Lynn Byrne
  • Knole Settee in Downton Abbey
    Knole Settee in Downton Abbey
  • Knole Castle
    Knole Castle (from Wikipedia)
  • Close up of rope and tassels via 1st Dibs
    Close up of rope and tassels (Photo from 1st Dibs)
  • Knole Sofa with the Side Down
    Knole Sofa with the Side Down
  • Knole Sofa Collage
    Knole Sofa Collage. Photos from (clockwise) Ad Magazine, House Beautiful, Layla Grayce, Architectural Digest
  • Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier lounging on a Knole Sofa with their Siamese cat, New Boy.
    Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier lounging on a Knole Sofa with their Siamese cat, New Boy.
  • Original Knole settee
    Original Knole settee
  • Paola Lenti outdoor sofa.
    Paola Lenti outdoor sofa.
  • Spencer Interiors has created  this modernized sleek-lined Knole with modular features.
    Modular Knole Sofa by Spencer Interiors
  • Close up of the vintage Knole Sofa in Greg McKenzie’s library at the 2014 Hampton Designer Show House. Photography by Lynn Byrne
    Close up of the vintage Knole Sofa in Greg McKenzie’s library at the 2014 Hampton Designer Show House. Photography by Lynn Byrne

How do you know a piece of furniture is “classic?”

In this periodic series for Decade XV magazine we will identify various forms of furniture deemed “classic” and explore what underlies their appeal.  First up, the Knole sofa, sometimes called the Knole settee.

Of course, one sure sign of a classic is longevity

The Knole sofa made its first appearance in the 17th century and designers today are still putting it in design show houses.  There it is in Greg McKenzie’s room in this year’s Hampton Designer Show House.

Close up of the vintage Knole Sofa in Greg McKenzie’s library at the 2014 Hampton Designer Show House. Photography by Lynn Byrne

The Knole sofa—and yes I am spelling it right—the other “knoll” refers to classic furniture of a more recent vintage, the 20th century—may have been the first upholstered sofa.  It is named after the huge pile in Kent, England, Knole Castle, where the original is housed.  Queen Elizabeth I gave the castle to her cousin Thomas Sackville and Sackville descendants still live there.

Knole Castle

Prior to the Knole, sofas as we know them did not exist.  Rather benches were simply pushed up against the walls for back support and to avoid drafts. So the Knole sofa, when ordered in the early 1600’s, made news.

That first Knole was commissioned as a royal throne and was more of a two seater settee rather than a sofa.

It is characterized by a deep seat and high back with arms the same height as the back.  The arms are hinged making them adjustable. They could drop down to make the settee somewhat like a chaise to accommodate a royal snooze. 

Original Knole settee

It is said that the high back and arms of the Knole sofa were designed to better keep out the drafty cold found in medieval castles.  Others speculate that those high backs and arms became popular because they served to shield sexy Tudor lovers from prying eyes!

Later versions of the Knole typically have finials at the top of the arms and back  which are held together with a heavy braided rope, and decorative tassels.  When the rope is loosened the sides drop down.

Close up of rope and tassels via 1st DibsKnole Sofa with the Side Down

Today’s antique Knole sofas are often from the Renaissance Revival period of the Victorian era in the late 19th and early 20th century. They continue to look great in traditional interiors.

Knole Sofa Collage

But it is not just longevity which makes a classic.  When a furniture form so captivates the world of design, it is inevitable that variations stemming from the original are created.  A design’s ability to adapt to changing needs and tastes, while still recognizable as derivative from the original form, also indicates a classic.

Some modern versions of the Knole sofa include this one designed by Paola Lenti for the outdoors.

Paola Lenti outdoor sofa.

Spencer Interiors has created  this modernized sleek-lined Knole with modular features.

Spencer Interiors has created  this modernized sleek-lined Knole with modular features.

Fame also serves a classic.  The Knole sofa plays a starring role in the library of the popular TV show Downton Abbey.  And who could not be charmed by this picture of Hollywood royalty enjoying their Knole sofa.  That’s  Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier lounging with their Siamese cat, New Boy.

Knole Settee in Downton Abbey and Vivien Leigh/Laurence Olivier collage.

Ready to buy one?